The Maryland Conservatory of Music began as a mission

The Baltimore Sun

On a given day, a classical guitar solo, a jazz band number or a piano sonata can be heard emanating from a former convent.

Since 2001, the building at the John Carroll School has been used by the Maryland Conservatory of Music, a nonprofit organization that provides musical training in disciplines including chamber orchestra, musical theater, jazz band, choir, guitar ensemble and popular music.

And in an effort to put a twist on the traditional perception of music instruction, the conservatory eschews the notion of a stuffy classroom with strict teachers insisting that every note is played to perfection, said Duke Thompson, the MCM's founder and director.

"We're redefining the word 'conservatory,' " Thompson said. "We're all about quality music training and encouraging positive thinking."

The MCM aims to prepare young students to take college-level music classes at schools such as the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The 36-member faculty gives instruction on instruments including guitar, bagpipes and cello.

Thompson, a 51-year-old Harford County native, spent 17 years as a tenured piano professor at Red Deer College in Alberta, Canada. In 2001, he returned to the county to start the conservatory. After spending a year hiring faculty and making preparations, he opened the school in September 2002.

"A lot of people told me I was crazy to leave, because I was in a really good position there, but I really wanted to start a music conservatory," he said.

Thompson recalled the early days working to establish the conservatory, including outings to track down bargain pianos.

"I drove around with a horse trailer and a truck buying pianos to outfit this place," he said. "I'd go to a house that was selling a piano for $500 and I'd say, 'I'll give you $300,' and they'd usually take it."

The conservatory received a founding donation from the late Katherine Reese of Havre de Grace. It is supported with funding from organizations including the Dresher Foundation, the Morris Mechanic Foundation and the Paint and Powder Club of Baltimore.

The conservatory has experienced significant growth, Thompson said. The school opened with 31 students and now has more than 300, who take lessons or play in shows, another function of the MCM. The growth of the conservatory has led Thompson to consider the idea of opening a second campus in the metropolitan region in the future.

The conservatory rents the 12,000-square-foot convent building. Though many John Carroll students take lessons at the MCM, the conservatory is not affiliated with the school, except that part of the building is shared with John Carroll's development office.

"We get along well and pay rent," Thompson said.

Students at the MCM range in age from about 5 to 13, but Thompson said anybody can sign up for lessons. Prices vary depending on length, but they begin at $29 for 30 minutes without additional group activities, and can go up to $103.25 for older students who take a 90-minute lesson with an additional group package.

Thompson said that instruction at the MCM emphasizes creativity and expression, with the goal of avoiding training that is overbearing or restrictive.

"That's not what we're about," Thompson said. "We don't push people to practice - they want to practice and share their music on their own."

The conservatory's core function is one-on-one instruction, but group ensembles are available every week during which students can share their music. Taking part in the ensembles inspires students to work harder at developing talents, Thompson said.

Nick Giannasca takes piano lessons in the afternoon at the MCM.

"I think that the experience is fun," said Nick, 10, a student at Harford Day School. "Everyone here is very nice, and they know what they're doing."

Nick noted the upbeat atmosphere, but he also said he likes the fact that he is challenged.

"If I am doing something wrong, they'll tell me, but then it's up to me to go home and practice it and get better at it," said Nick, who also has taken voice lessons at the MCM.

The MCM students frequently put on shows in the county, including an informal jam session on the first Saturday of each month at the Main Street Tower Restaurant in downtown Bel Air. The conservatory put a piano in the restaurant and the show can feature classical music, jazz or even bluegrass, complete with banjos.

Students and faculty show up for the "Anything Goes Music Show," as it is known. Many play, but others just enjoy the show and support their fellow musicians at the sessions, which Thompson says are well attended.

"You'll hear anything from Chopin to Bob Dylan," he said. "It's a really neat scene, it's almost like a coffeehouse jam session."

A portion of the restaurant's income on the evenings of performances goes to the conservatory.

"We're not only giving our students the opportunity to learn and practice music, but get out and share it," Thompson said.

The talents of faculty were showcased in the conservatory's first "Fall Faculty Fest." A student performance event is also held each spring.

"The faculty showcase shows the diversity we have here with the students," Thompson said. "I don't hire anybody unless they are performers."

Thompson said he wants the conservatory to be a place of learning, but also a place of fun and creativity. He said music should be an extension of the student.

"Music is just a great thing to have in your life, and we treat it as such," he said.

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